The lone wolf terrorist does not exist.
The lone wolf terrorist is a fiction. He doesn't exist.
The reason is simple.
People don't engage in terrorism as individuals. They do it as part of a social group. They need the social meaning a group provides to justify the personal risk and the act of violence.
This need for meaning may be even more true for blood and guts terrorism, given the high mortality rates and public disapproval involved. This creates achasm between cheerleading a violent cause and an actual act of terrorism. Crossing this chasm requires an extensive social investment.
This chasm makes it extremely hard to activate terrorists remotely. The online and offline grooming required to activate any single individual can be easily detected by security forces. We've been lucky this is true. Groups like ISIS have tens of thousands of active online supporters in the developed world and if they could self-activate even a small percentage of these supporters, we'd be in deep trouble.
Unfortunately, it appears our luck has run out. The attacks in Orlando and outside Paris have demonstrated that ISIS has found an innovative way to cross the chasm between online cheerleader and active terrorist. A method made possible by instant and global access to social media and a method that can easily pierce US counter-terrorism defenses.
These attacks show it's now possible to turn online supporters into a self-activating terrorist without heavy investments in individualized social grooming. This is accomplished by:
- turning the effort required plan, prepare, and execute a terrorist act into a ritual of initiation. Initiates are expected to undertake this effort on their own, without support.
- turning the act itself into a forum for a public, online declaration of fealty -- an extremely potent medieval loyalty pledge made by knights to their lords -- to the Caliph of ISIS. This pledge is made public (both attackers used Facebook to publicly pledge fealty to al Baghdadi) at the moment of the attack to maximize the meaning to the attacker and the audience. Think of it as social media performance art.
- immediate acceptance into the ranks of ISIS. Inclusion in the group and acceptance as a vassal by the Caliph. In other words: ISIS has found a way to provide social belonging and meaning through an online activation process.
This method is nearly opaque to US counter-terrorism efforts:
- the marketing funnel for this process of activation can be done in the open, in vanilla forums. Everything required is within the realm of free speech protections.
- all of the detectable preparation for warfare is done by the initiate by himself, which makes it very hard to detect.
- it has zero barriers to participation. Anybody can undertake the initiation and pledge loyalty, from the criminal to the self-hating homosexual, and they will be accepted (their past will be washed away) upon pledging during the act.
Even in its raw form, this method of activation has yielded two successful attacks (Orlando and Paris) over a couple of days.
Now that this form of attack has been demonstrated we are likely to see many more.
PS: The primary national security challenge for the US following the collapse of al Qaeda in 2008, was to prevent the establishment of another global terror network that could find new ways to attack the US. We failed at that. Not only have a new, bigger, badder terror network (ISIS), it has now found a way to attack us again, again, and again.
PPS: The media and the government will spend the next couple of months finding "motives" for Orlando in order to avoid connecting this to ISIS. That's a waste of time. This process of activation, is open to all other motivations for an attack. All that matters is that initiation and the ritual occur according to script.